Don't fuck up like X, I would repeat to myself. After one long, rambling, solipsistic intro, he finally asked me, "Why am I ringing you, love? He got the sack from his weekly column. His byline appeared sporadically.
I heard that he had quit the booze, and was trying to quit smoking. He was down to 17 a day, and to encourage self-discipline used to keep a note of each time he lit up. Then there was silence; then I heard that he had died — alone of course. I went to the funeral. Some of his early, highly skilled poems were read out, and I was saddened again by the subsequent offence against his talent. They had turned out well; both were charming and intelligent. They spoke with proper roundedness and affection for their father; the daughter described how he had coached her to get into Cambridge, how patient and helpful he had been.
And I had been wrong, or had only partly understood. As I left the crematorium for the wake, I was saying to myself — and to him — "No, you didn't fuck up after all. I have no problem with failure - it is success that makes me sad. I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do. It is built in. And then redo it, so it reads better. The writer's great and sustaining love is for the language they work with every day. It may not be what gets us to the desk but it is what keeps us there and, after 20 or 30 years, this love yields habit and pleasure and necessity.
All this is known.
In the long run we are all dead, and none of us is Proust. The zen of it is that success and failure are both an illusion, that these illusions will keep you from the desk, they will spoil your talent; they will eat away at your life and your sleep and the way you speak to the people you love. The problem with this spiritual argument is that success and failure are also real. You can finish a real book and it can be published or not, sell or not, be reviewed or not.
Each one of these real events makes it easier or harder to write, publish, sell the next book. And the one after that. If you keep going and stay on the right side of all this, you can be offered honours and awards, you can be recognised in the street, you can be recognised in the streets of several countries, some of which do not have English as a native language. You can get some grumpy fucker to say that your work is not just successful but important, or several grumpy fuckers, and they can say this before you are quite dead. And all this can happen, by the way, whether or not your work is actually good, or still good.
Success may be material but is also an emotion — one that is felt, not by you, but by the crowd. This is why we yearn for it, and can not have it, quite. It is not ours to hold. I am more comfortable with the personal feeling that is failure than with the exposure of success.
I say this even though I am, Lord knows, ambitious and grabby, and I want to be up there with the rest of them. With perfectly good lives. And you come to appreciate the ones who have figured all that shit out.
Some people like all that, but I, for reasons I have not yet figured out, find it difficult. I don't want to be an object. I find jealousy unpleasant because it is unpleasant. The writer's life is one of great privilege, so "Suck it up", you might say — there are more fans than trolls. But there are two, sometimes separate, ambitions here. One is to get known, make money perhaps and take a bow — to be acknowledged by that dangerous beast, the crowd.
The other is to write a really good book. And a book is not written for the crowd, but for one reader at a time. I still have this big, stupid idea that if you are good enough and lucky enough you can make an object that insists on its own subjective truth, a personal thing, a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, refuses to die.
And in this, I am doomed to fail. I was a Blake baby. I kept my mother waiting, arriving not just late but at a peculiar angle. He would just have liked me to be everybody's friend, the way he was. And I failed him. I failed my mother too by taking far too precocious an interest in sex. And I failed myself by not knowing how to get any.
But you have to see failure as an opportunity. I took the route favoured by all worldly failures and became a spiritual success. That might be an inflated way of putting it, but failures are nothing if not grandiose. We become special by virtue of not being special enough. I doubt many writers were made any other way. If we are all beautiful, all clever, all happy, all successes in our way, what do we want with the language of the dispossessed?
But the nature of failure ensures that writers will go on writing no matter how many readers they have. You have to master the embarrassments and ignominies of life. The first novel I wrote had failure as a subject. Success as the worldly estimate it is, is rarely a subject for literature. Gatsby cannot possibly get Daisy. Dorothea Brooke cannot be allowed to change the world. Thus does art get its own back on those without the imagination to fail. It is this failure — a ceaseless threnody keening through the writing mind — that dominates my working life, just as an overweening sense of not having loved with enough depth or recklessness or tenderness dominates my personal one.
I prize this sense of failure — embrace it even. As a child I loved a John Glashan cartoon that showed a group of meths drinkers lying around on the floor of a squat. When anyone starts out to do something creative — especially if it seems a little unusual — they seek approval, often from those least inclined to give it. But a creative life cannot be sustained by approval, any more than it can be destroyed by criticism — you learn this as you go on.
The positive and the negative are not so much self-cancelling as drowned out by that carping, hectoring internal voice that goads me on and slaps me down all day every day. It follows, I'm afraid, that what we might call institutional success — prizes, fellowships, honours — also seems pretty irrelevant to me. I may think those who accept them gladly are being hopelessly infra dig, but I still envy them: And then there are those who both believe in the verdict of posterity, and also believe — somewhat paradoxically — that they have already achieved it.
Some poor fools, at this point in their careers, get a pharaonic delusion that they are being interred in the canonical Cheops while they yet breathe. We've all seen the symptoms of this: And of course, the vast majority of today's mummified immortals are tomorrow's Ozymandiases. No, this is the paradox for me: I don't think I'm alone in this — nor do I think it's an attitude that only prevails among people whose work is obviously "creative". On the contrary, it often occurs to me that since what successes I do manage are both experienced and felt entirely in solitude, there must be many others who are the same as me: There may be, as Bob Dylan says, no success like failure, but far from failure being no success at all, in its very visceral intensity, it is perhaps the only success there is.
Sometimes in order to make a great omelette, you have to break a few eggs. Whiplash breaks all of the eggs, but the omelette is tortured perfection. I mean, if they really put forth the effort. This is one of those movies that makes you wonder what it was like to sit in the Park City theater in to experience it with a crowd of other people who had no idea what they were in for. In that sense, this film represents the best of a festival like Sundance because it was a true revelation — a fresh voice planting a flag into the cinematic scene and demanding to be heard.
In this age of sequels and remakes and the ire of sequels and remakes, how in the hell did a sequel end up on our list of all-time best Sundance movies?
It fits into the mold of being a more amped-up, expansive version of the first film, but it is still every bit the scrappy type of independent movie that Sundance loves. Plenty of movies will make this list because they are thoughtful, challenging and dramatic.
A young woman named Lee Maggie Gyllenhaal with emotional issues takes some tentative steps out into the world with little in the way of expectations. A simple desire to be a secretary lands her in the office of one E. Secretary is one of the most beautiful and least seen love stories of the past fifteen years. Gyllenhaal though walked away with numerous, well-deserved awards and nominations for her performance and a move into even more prominent roles.
David Gordon Green hit the scene with an immediate display of genius, but his feature debut, George Washington , is not a Sundance movie.
It made its debut at Berlin. This follow-up, however, premiered in Park City and has all the makings of a stereotypical Sundance rom-dram but is almost kind of too good for the fest. Zooey Deschanel stars, just before becoming the hipster dream girl. Green keeps his characters from being mere players in a story. And through it all is an aesthetic of rust and weeds that combine for an unparalleled American beauty, plus dialogue that is authentic in its fantasticality.
It gave me the line I like to use on anyone who changes for the worse, and that certainly applied to Green and his career for a while: Regardless of what little splash it made in Park City, though, Heathers is a prime example of what a Sundance movie ought to be.
The Emmy -nominated actress was already making a name for herself before shaving her head for " Stranger Things. In the long run we are all dead, and none of us is Proust. I went to the funeral. Something close to a tragic, deadly serious Pink Panther , maybe. There may be, as Bob Dylan says, no success like failure, but far from failure being no success at all, in its very visceral intensity, it is perhaps the only success there is. A millionaire playboy goes into Las Vegas and comes out married to a woman he barely knows.
Of course, many seem to try. Like any great Sundance movie and it should be noted that Sundance was only the US premiere of Heather s, which debuted at an Italian film market a few months prior , this went on to influence tons and tons of wannabes in the 25 years since its release, whether they be studio productions like Clueless and Mean Girls or fellow Sundance vets like Jawbreaker also a studio production and Pretty Persuasion.
And as much as I wish they could when I see their synopses in the film fest program guide, none ever have the bite or wit of this wickedly wonderful masterpiece. Long before director Rian Johnson was about to make a Star Wars movie, even before he and Joseph Gordon-Levitt would team-up to take on time travel with Looper , there was Brick. By the time I had seen it at the now defunct Deep Focus Film Festival in Columbus, Ohio in , it had already played Sundance and a host of other film festivals.
The story of a high school loser Gordon-Levitt who goes down the rabbit hole into a twisted, colorful world of juvenile crime in search for his missing ex-girlfriend, Brick is a beautifully and meticulously constructed modern noir. Johnson infuses his movie with great energy with fresh dialogue and some bold cinematographic choices.
Filmed in 20 days, full of impressive feats of practical and in-camera effects and infused with an appreciation for hardboiled detective novels and noir cinema, Brick is a film that would be impressive on any scale. To know that it was made with limited resources and a cast of relative unknowns elevates it into the pantheon of Sundance debuts. Something else you might have forgotten? The film was nominated for Best Picture, and yes, this was back in , when that particular Oscar field still only contained five nominees. In , a French tightrope walker named Philippe Petit fixed a cable between the two iconic towers of the recently completed World Trade Center in New York City and walked out between them with nothing between himself and the ground but a steel cable and 1, feet of open air.
We can see Petit as a charismatic talking head, in modern day, describing the way he carefully planned his daring walk. Energetic from start to finish, Man on Wire is a cornucopia of emotions, chief among them anxiety and reverence. The later superhero role would cement him as a major Hollywood star, but this is the movie that put the former child actor on the map as an adult performer worth paying attention to. And the portrayal is so much fun to imitate and quote.
When this adaptation debuted at Sundance in , there was a lot of negative buzz, primarily from the non-critic audience. Even those who liked the movie were focused on how dislikable the main character is, and this seems weird in the context of so many other quotable psychopaths in cinema. The hatred American Psycho was met with in Park City has had me wondering how a more literal adaptation might have been received.
In January of , Sundance regular Sam Rockwell was the marquee name of a teensy sci-fi feature simply named Moon , but the real story of the space-set thriller was director Duncan Jones. Ken Brendan Gleeson and Ray Colin Farrell have arrived in the Belgian city of Bruges with direct orders from their boss to wait there for further instructions. Hollywood loves clear, easy to read labels on their releases meaning audiences rarely get smart, genre-blending films and instead are left to choose from easily digestible comedies, dramas or action films to name few.
The biggest beneficiary aside from viewers was Farrell who showed a different side of his talents. There are at least two reasons to love Memento. We all have systems and rules that we live by. While you consider that, consider the second reason to love this film: His entire career is owed to this movie — a festival favorite that every distributor loved, but passed on. No one saw it being understood, let alone being a commercial success, so New Market had to sell it themselves, and they had millions in profit to show for it.
This was a genuine phenomenon, one that fans continue to dissect and puzzle over even as Nolan has offered more mysteries. Where it fits in the noir clubhouse is difficult to say. Something close to a tragic, deadly serious Pink Panther , maybe.